If we’re judging the Sixers on their odds of winning a championship within the next three years, then Thursday was a good day. They improved their shooting, and their ball-handling, and their playmaking, and they did all of this while retaining the ability to make a future big-ticket trade. They could have made themselves an even better team for the rest of this season, but it would have come at the expense of the seasons to come. And if “better” didn’t end up being good enough, well, what then?
It’s a complicated question, however long your view. While the Sixers are a better team now than they were 24 hours ago, they remain sneakily susceptible at the top of a conference whose best is clearly yet to come. While George Hill is unquestionably a better value than Kyle Lowry would have been, he also doesn’t change the playoff landscape the way the Raptors star would have. The Sixers added a player who, for the time being, will give them the ballhandler off the bench that they desperately needed, and one who, down the road, could give Doc Rivers some mix-and-match options within the context of a playoff series. Hill is a good three-point shooter, making 40.2 percent of his attempts over his last six seasons and 44.2 percent over his last two, and he’ll bring some lateral quickness to a defense that will need to contend with the type of guards who have been the Sixers’ poison. But he is not the defender that Lowry is, nor the scorer, nor the facilitator.
Unfortunately, markets are two-sided affairs, and it’s tough to strike a fair deal with a partner who is ambivalent about dealing. After weeks of will-they, won’t-they speculation about Toronto’s plans for Lowry and an entire day of frenzied reports suggesting three or four contenders bidding against each other, the Raptors apparently decided that if they couldn’t lasso the moon, then nothing else would suffice. According to The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, Toronto’s asking price was two young players and two first-round picks, which would have been a borderline absurd cost to bear when coupled with the contract that Lowry would have been seeking from his next team. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that the prospect of paying two years and $50 million to a declining 35-year-old player was more than enough justification to pass on the longtime Raptors’ star.
“I’m always looking at a threeish, two-to-four-year time horizon and trying to maximize our odds,” team president Daryl Morey said. “I think Doc and Elton and myself, we’re hoping to have a very long run here, and we have some amazing players in their prime, so what I’m trying to do is maximize our chance of winning this year over that window with more weight this year. So, if there’s a move that ups our odds a little bit more this year but really hurts our odds in the future, then that doesn’t make sense. We’re actually hurting our odds of winning the title.”
While Lowry definitely would have given the Sixers a better shot this season, it’s far from certain that he would have done so in a manner material enough to alter the postseason calculus. This is especially true when you consider the fact that acquiring him would have required the Sixers to part with at least one of their wing defenders and potentially both. Any improvement they achieved on the defensive end in Lowry would have been at least partially offset by the loss of Danny Green and perhaps Matisse Thybulle. In other words, we’d still be asking the big question we’re asking now: do the Sixers really have enough to contend with a trio of teams that have spent much of the last year tailoring their team to beat a team like the Sixers are.
With the addition of Victor Oladipo to Kendrick Nunn and Goran Dragic, the Heat have a trio of the type of playmaking guards that have long given the Sixers trouble. They’re also expected to add Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge, whose ability from three-point range could allow Miami to draw Joel Embiid away from the basket. The Nets were quiet at the deadline, but James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant need no introduction. And the Bucks clearly have the potential to give the Sixers problems. If not Lowry, a player like Hill was a necessity, as much for his ability to match up against some of these guards as his ballhandling ability. The fact that he can shoot means he can potentially work into a lineup with Simmons and Embiid. Morey sounded confident that the Sixers would be able to add a big man on the buyout market. It would help if that big man could play away from the basket.
As good of a regular season NBA team as the Sixers are showing themselves to be, as much credit as they deserve for that, and as much unabashed enjoyment as the fan base should take from it, they seem destined to enter the playoffs as a heavy underdog to make the Finals. There’s no shame in that - not when the competition is what it is.
“I think Brooklyn’s going to go into these playoffs the favorite,” Morey said, “but we’re right there.”
As has been noted plenty of times before, there’s a reason they play the games.